KIP MOONEY: As season two draws to a close (we only have two episodes left to review–my how time flies), I think this week’s episode will be my favorite. It’s not necessarily the funniest (that would be “Halloween”) or the most humane (“Two Monkeys and a Panda”), but managed to pull off a rare feat–having its characters grow.
Now something like this can only happen if a show gives you characters you can invest in and Modern Family has proved time and again it does. Each storyline had characters stretching outside their comfort zones, and the characters who felt the most uncomfortable–Phil & Claire for the same reason, Jay & Mitch for different reasons–all gained so much from the experience that it was impossible not to feel you had done the same.
I’ll save the emotional kicker for the end, just like the show does. So let’s start with that hilarious dinner.
Jay, after ditching Manny & Gloria at the symphony (he thought he was seeing Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), ends up in the same restaurant as Mitch & Cam, who are there to have some “gay time” with their fabulous friends, each with a name more ridiculous than the last. Nathan Lane returns as Pepper Salzman and is used to much greater effect here than in that weak “Earthquake” episode. He’s always been better as the feisty one than the prima donna. His banter with Mitch & Cam’s “homies” reminds me of the rapid-fire exchanges of my own cool uncle’s friends. “Don’t go there!”
As the night wears on, Jay–somewhat through the aid of alcohol–finds himself more and more at ease in “Mitch’s world” as it were. Mitch, whose always felt at least some tension between himself and his dad, takes this new-found closeness and runs with it. Jay may not remember the next morning that he made a date with Pepper, but he will remember that he had a great time. It’s amazing. He’s becoming more tolerant and loving before our very eyes.
But we weren’t just treated to exceptional jokes. The teleplay, written by series co-creator Steven Levitan and Emmy-winning writer Jeffrey Richman, also had tremendous heart. And that heart was genuine. It wasn’t tacked on. It wasn’t sappy. It was just real.
The crotchety next-door neighbor bit has been done by just about every sitcom and movie, so I was shocked and relieved to see it handled so wonderfully here. Walt–an old man name if ever there was one–is the de facto villain here (played beautifully by Philip Baker Hall, who needs to make sure he’s a recurring guest star), a man so mean even Phil doesn’t have anything nice to say about him. So when Luke just walks next door and asks him if he can have his ball back–and then starts hanging out with him, everyone’s a little concerned. Well, make that Phil and Claire. Haley’s in her own little world and Alex is obsessed with these sudden mass bird deaths.
Phil cites three examples of old guy-precocious kid relationships that worked out: Up, Gran Torino and True Grit. Claire quickly shoots those down: “Cartoon, killed himself, lost an arm.”
It was a funny moment, but perfectly reflected how our culture feels nowadays. In the sitcom world, Claire is of course over-reacting. But in reality, the thought of an old man hanging out with a young boy feels creepy, even though I imagine in 99 percent of cases, it’s a genuine friendship between two lonely people.
Turns out that’s exactly what it is, and after an awkward assumed break-in, Phil and Claire realize that. The next day, Walt comes over with onions from his garden, and a bond is formed. I really hope that Walt–more than any of the guest stars this season–becomes a familiar face.
I can’t say enough good things about this episode. It was risky to go in this direction, but it was executed flawlessly and that’s why “Boys’ Night” is going down as my personal favorite of season two.
Cam: “Where are your parents?”
Haley: “Oh, they took Alex to the oncologist.”
Cam: “Omigod! What’s wrong?!”
Haley: “Nothing. She just needs new glasses.”
Phil: “Westerns are my favorite. That and anything set against the backdrop of competitive cheerleading.”
Jay to Pepper: “You had a shot with Montgomery Clift? How old are you?”
HOWARD MEGDAL: Agreed, and what Modern Family consistently does is take the situations that have been distorted beyond the point of humor by lesser sitcoms and infuse reality into them. Not that it is a snapshot of real life or anything, but it does provide the actual fears and motivations that drive people within their comic situations.
Phil and Claire’s concern about neighbor Walt is a perfect example of this. No one is really worried their next door neighbor is going to kill them. But what parent wouldn’t fear a mysterious old man hanging out with their son? The awkwardness of this was captured well-and without sacrificing the humor of the situation.
As for Jay’s entrance into Mitchell’s world, this was similarly accomplished with understatement. Pepper as himself makes a lot more sense than Pepper upset- it is redundant from a comic perspective. And Jay is, as ever, both tolerant and comfortable in what he knows- the challenge his character consistently faces.
Only Alex felt a bit wasted here- but perhaps that is the point- an air of darkness behind the proceedings, small problems faced while larger ones go unacknowledged. It seemed like an odd note to strike. But it didn’t ruin the episode, to say the least.